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CAMPO commits $633 million to I-35 without a final list of cut projects

Tuesday, April 21, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

In the last week alone, hundreds of people from across the six-county region have contacted the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization requesting more time and analysis before it decides on the list of projects to defer in order to free up $633 million for the Interstate 35 Capital Express Central project.

In response, the regional planning agency has relaxed its timeline to allow for what CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson says will be a “true apples-to-apples comparison” of some projects to determine which to delay and which to maintain. Although the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board passed a resolution Monday committing to the allocation of $633 million to the I-35 project, the board will not adopt a final list of deferred projects until June 8.

CAMPO Chair Cynthia Long called Monday’s special board meeting in anticipation of an April 30 Texas Transportation Commission vote to invest $3.4 billion in the Capital Express Central project. This major redesign would add two managed lanes in each direction on I-35 between U.S. Highway 290 East and Ben White Boulevard and lower the interstate below grade through Central Austin.

“It’s my expectation that when this work happens … we’ll be able to do it in a way that has demand-managed lanes similar to what we have on MoPac,” Mayor Steve Adler said after moving to approve the resolution. “There’s nothing we can do to better take people out of their cars and better support climate change mitigation than to actually have a viable means for creating transit along that I-35 corridor.”

At the board’s April 6 meeting, Adler criticized CAMPO for what he considered an arbitrary and ambiguous process of selecting projects for deferment, a flaw that Ryan Collins, the agency’s short-range planning manager, said will be corrected in coming weeks.

Starting this week, CAMPO staffers are requesting project details for each of the region’s unevaluated urban mobility projects that are tied to Category 7 funds under the federal Surface Transportation Block Grant program. Collins said the agency will be scoring the individual projects in May according to how soon they would be ready for construction and a number of other qualitative and quantitative criteria. Johnson said the scores will be available approximately two weeks before the board’s June 8 meeting.

Category 7 projects currently on the deferred list include roadway expansion projects as well as travel demand management and active transportation projects like construction of a bike and pedestrian path at Northern Walnut Creek Trail.

Tom Wald, executive director of the Red Line Parkway Initiative, said it would be “problematic” to divert dollars to I-35 from existing Category 7 funds, which are meant to provide for active transportation and transit projects as well as roadways.

As she had previously promised, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea abstained from Monday’s vote, arguing that other funding mechanisms have not been adequately explored. “You can fund (I-35) without having to claw back so much money from Central Texas in particular, for local projects.”

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt echoed Shea’s concern about CAMPO’s lack of a plan for moving forward after the delayed projects are selected and funding is allocated to I-35. “This isn’t opposition to the I-35 project so much as it is a question mark of anxiety around whether we truly have a plan moving forward or whether we’re just going to continue to do, sort of, the path of least resistance which is no longer tracking with what the probable future for us looks like,” she said.

The board approved the resolution 19-1-1 with Council Member Jimmy Flannigan opposed and Shea abstaining.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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